10 years. Depending on how you look at it, it may sound like a lot or not so much. I feel saying I launched my diving blog 10 years ago makes me sound like a dinosaur. Yet, if I look at everything that has happened, what are 10 years when you change the course of your life? If somebody told me that jetlagged night in Singapore, setting up my website, where I would be and what I would be doing after a decade, no chance I would have believed it.
Somehow, the great pause of pandemic helped me build stronger foundations for a life I barely dared to dream about. What are an extra 2 years in a 10-year journey from corporate slave to scuba nomad? Things happen when you start looking clearly at opportunities and know when to seize them. This is why I’m finally starting my nomad lifestyle in Panama, a country I knew next to nothing about, with a now flourishing digital marketing business and my scuba diving bag in tow.
How I hopped on a flight to Panama in less than a month
Moving back to November 2021: I won a flight ticket to anywhere in the world as part of a competition organised by the travel video app NaviSavi. Sweet, isn’t it? And where do you think a passionate scuba diver dreams to go with that in hand? Most of you got it right when I popped the question on my Instagram stories: the Galapagos Islands! And guess what… the fastest way to go from France to Ecuador (and from most places in Europe) is to fly via Panama.
Then planets aligned. Two weeks later, I received a newsletter from the ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association). It announced they were about to resume their in-person conferences starting with Panama at the beginning of 2022. I applied the best I could but knew the competition would be tough. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I received the notification that I was one of the 6 official media delegates among more than a hundred applications. My “WooHoo!” quickly turned into an “Oh-oh”…
After the holiday with my family, my return to Paris was on the 5th of January. The conference in Panama was on the 4th of February. I had less than a month to finish renovating my flat in Paris, find a tenant, and pack my life for a 7-month adventure to Latin America including Panama and Ecuador without flying back and forth. All of this while managing a record sales month for my freelance business? Challenge accepted!
Packing for a 7-month scuba diving trip to Latin America
First of all, some of you may ask, “Why 7 months and not a year?”. I had the feeling 2022 was finally the year we could resume international travel. Besides, Latin America could be the best area to do so as most countries accept vaccinated travellers without quarantine or tests. But I carefully watched what happened in 2020 and 2021. It seemed more reasonable to return to Europe by September, before wintertime, for the moment.
Following my 2018-2019 sabbatical, I wasn’t a newbie at long-term travel anymore. I knew I had to start packing with my scuba diving gear for the coldest water conditions. The Galapagos Islands are infamous for their sometimes rough and colder waters. It was a no brainer, it might be heavier, but I needed a 7 mm wetsuit with my hood, booties and gloves. Then I packed my travel scuba kit: my Rogue BDC, Mikron regulator, Plazma mask, and Storm fins.
I then had a last-minute DIN adapter situation. Hopefully, I realised before leaving that my light aluminium model was stuck because of an electrolysis phenomenon. I ran to the closest dive shop in Paris and got a brass model, heavier but safer.
I filled my packing cubes with mostly tropical clothing, but still, I took one hoodie, one Heattech long-sleeve t-shirt, a light sleeveless puffer jacket, a rain jacket and an extra pair of jeans (in addition to the one I’m wearing when flying). The weather will be chillier in the Andes, especially in Quito, Ecuador, at 2850 m of altitude. By counting the number of t-shirts, I managed to keep my 120L scuba diving bag below 23 kg and avoid hefty excess luggage fees.
My biggest issue now is the weight of all my cameras and underwater photography accessories. Since I added my Canon EOS M50 for land photography with its own small hiking backpack, I made my life a tad more complicated. Hopefully, to keep working on the road, I don’t need more than my Asus Zenbook laptop, an external drive and my noise cancellation headphone (no idea how I lived without it before).
There was one last trick I hadn’t used yet: the cabin accessory. Most international airlines give you an allowance for cabin luggage on top of your hold luggage, but they also give you the possibility to carry an accessory to the cabin. It can be a purse or a laptop bag. Well, in my case, it will be my small camera backpack! After 4 years of semi-retirement, my 25-litre anti-theft backpack returned to carry my underwater photo gear and laptop in the cabin. It was maybe a little bit over the authorised 12 kg…
A glimpse into my first two weeks in Panama
If I had to sum up my experience of Panama so far in three words, it would be Joy, Surprise and Adventure. I couldn’t ask for a better gift for this milestone anniversary.
Travelling outside of the EU again feels like a liberation after these two years of restrictions. Indeed, like many countries in Latin America, Panama allows vaccinated travellers to enter the country without any quarantine or testing. In Panama, we still have to wear face masks indoors and outdoors. Sometimes, with temperatures well above 30°C, it is tough. However, I still prefer trading cold winter in Europe with this minor inconvenience.
The warm weather wasn’t the only thing that welcomed me. Although speaking Spanish obviously makes my life easier here, the friendliness and eagerness to socialise with every Panamanian cheered me up. Everyone is stoked to hear I’m staying in the country for three months and want to help me write better articles about their country. Every day I’m getting a crash course about Panama with a new teacher. There is so much more than the canal in Panama. However, learning the history of its construction is crucial as it shaped the country literally through centuries of explorations, negotiations and setbacks.
Following the AdventureNEXT conference and its 4-day introduction trip to Panama with Coiba Island and the Azuero Peninsula, I decided to settle for a month in Panama City. I need time to get some work done and plan the rest of my trip. Every day, I add “to visit” pins to GoogleMaps: I start wondering if 3 months will be enough to write comprehensive guides about how to explore Panama as a scuba diver. After Panama City, where there is already so much to do, I plan to go to Santa Catalina to return diving in Coiba National Park on the Pacific side. I’ll head then to Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side, next to Panama’s other marine national park, Bastimentos Island. I will definitely check Boquete and Volcan in the highlands of Panama: this is where the best coffee of Panama grows.
Beyond the surprise of the number of exciting places to visit, I was pleased to discover that Panamanians take their food seriously. From the refined and inventive cuisine scene in Casco Antigo, Panama City, to the home-style specialities made with love and local products, all my meals have been a moment to look forward to. Food in Panama is mainly influenced by Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. But more surprisingly, the influence of Spanish cuisine is more present than any other country I visited in Latin America, including many arroz recipes (rice). Fun fact: people don’t really eat hot chilli peppers here.
My current favourites? The ceviche de corvina (marinated raw seabass salad), the lobster cooked with coconut milk, the corn pastelitos, the arepas con queso (corn pancakes with cheese), hojaldra (fried puff pastry) with scrambled eggs, patacones (plantain banana fritters), yuca fries and maracuya (passion fruit) juice. I also loved that every restaurant I go has vegetarian/vegan options which are based on the same specialities, not just a salad. No worry, I’m already working on the list of the best restaurants in Panama City.
And the cherry on top? Imagine going through a 1h30 makeover in your first week in Panama to wear the national dress, the Pollera… This happened to me on a day packed with cultural activities at Finca Pamel in the Azuero Peninsula! I was scared to overheat with so many layers, but the linen makes the dress surprisingly light to wear despite the 10,000 USD worth of gold on top of it (yes, you read correctly). After dancing to Panama carnival music and going through of wedding-like photoshoot, I asked if I was ready for citizenship!
All of this wouldn’t be enough to make it the perfect world adventure divers’ destination without a concentrated dose of adventures across the country. Without asking, Panama delivered thanks to Balaena Travel and Pacific Adventures’ jaw-dropping organisation.
We scuba dived with sharks and turtles, hiked in the rain forest with monkeys, kayaked nearly 10 km to remote paradise islets, and slept under a gorgeous starry sky in glamping mode, all of this in Coiba National Park. It was the most intense two days of adventures I’ve ever lived, but I loved every second of it, no matter how early we had to wake up.
Later at the Gamboa Resort, where the AdventureNEXT conference was, I went bird watching over the canopy with an aerial tram, then met sloths and tropical frogs at a sanctuary in the Soberania National Park. After my first week living and working in Panama City, I got to scuba dive with spotted eagle rays only 30 minutes away by boat in Taboguilla Island. I have a feeling this is only the start…
And what about scuba diving in Panama?
In these first weeks in Panama, I had the opportunity to scuba dive in two locations. First, I dived in Coiba National Park, a former penal colony turned into a nature reserve, with Expedicion Coiba. And last weekend, I discovered Taboguilla Island, in the bay of Panama City, in front of the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, with Scuba Panama. In both cases, I haven’t been deeper than 13 m for the moment.
In Coiba, I saw white-tip sharks, mobula rays and turtles. In Taboguilla Island, despite not being a protected area close to the city, I saw spotted eagle rays, a stingray and a torpedo ray. Beyond these pleasant encounters, I can attest the diving conditions in the Pacific Ocean are sometimes challenging. I got a steep thermocline at only 6 m deep, I saw visibility dropping or increasing in a blink of an eye, and the currents gave me a full-body workout as I had to keep fin-kicking firmly. While there are dive sites for beginners, the most interesting ones seem to be a better choice for experienced divers so far.
I’m also still in the process of adjusting my camera settings for underwater photography. The amount of plankton in the water combined with extra bright sunshine diffuses a dazzling light in the water, making it tricky to get clear shots. But I’m working on it. I can’t wait to return to Coiba National Park in 3 weeks with the bit of knowledge I gathered in these 4 dives.
Then there is the mystery of Bocas del Toro. This is one of the most popular seaside holiday locations in Panama, near the border of Costa Rica. Everyone asked if I was planning to go since I couldn’t miss it. But what about scuba diving? I keep reading mixed reviews about it. But I can’t believe that there is nothing to see underwater in the second largest marine park in the country. I’ll try and test it, digging beyond the obvious, to find out what is going on there. All I can say is, “Panama, keep the good surprises coming!”
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